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Christmas Through The Centuries

 
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KYHeirloomer



Joined: 21 Aug 2007
Posts: 552
Location: Central Kentucky

PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2008 4:05 pm    Post subject: Christmas Through The Centuries Reply with quote

With the holidays coming on I thought it would be fun to explore Christmas foods as they’ve appeared through the years.

Although many people aren’t aware of it, Christmas, as we celebrate it, is a product of the Victorian era. During Victoria’s long reign English and German traditions were combined, along with pagan holdovers such as decorating a conifer. And sumptuous feasting became the order of the day.

In her delightful little "Christmas Feasts From History" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981), Lorna Sass presents the following menu for a Victorian Christmas Dinner:

Individual Oyster Loaves
Roast Stuffed Goose (and vegetables of your choice)
Superlative Mincemeat, which in turn is used to make
Mince Pies Royal
Christmas Pudding with Punch Sauce
Shrub

None of this sounds unfamiliar to modern palates. And, if you substitute a turkey for the goose, it’s a typical American Christmas dinner.

The irony is, however, that virtually none of these dishes originated during the Victorian age. All of them go back at least a hundred years earlier, sometimes much more than that.

Take the Individual Oyster Loaves. In 1745, Hannah Glasse, in her "The Art Of Cookery Made Plain and Easy", provides this recipe. I’ve cleaned up the spelling and font selection:

To Make Oyster Loaves

Take all the crumbs out of three French rolls, by cutting a piece of the top crust off, in such a manner as it may fit again in the same place; fry the rolls out of which the crumb has been taken brown in fresh butter; take half a pint of oysters, stew them in their own liquor, then take out the oysters with a fork, strain the liquor to them, put them into a sauce-pan again with a glass of white wine, a little beaten mace, a little grated nutmeg, a quarter of a pound of butter rolled in flour; shake them well together then put them into the rolls; and these make a pretty side-dish for a first course. You may rub in the crumbs of two or the rolls and toss up with the oysters.

An earlier manuscript has essentially the same recipe, but says to use a “two-penny loaf.” Nobody, at this point, knows exactly what size that was, however.

In 1823, in her “The Virginia Housewife,” Mary Randolf has a slightly simpler recipe:

To make Oyster Loaves

Take little round loaves, cut off the tops, scrape out all the crumbs, then put the oysters into a stew pan with the crumbs that came out of the loaves, a little water, and a good lump of butter; stew them together ten or fifteen minutes, then put in a spoonful of good cream, fill our loaves, lay the bit of crust carefully on again, set them in the oven to crisp. Three are enough for a side dish.

When I updated Hannah Glasse’s recipe I used Sally Lunn muffins. Lorna Sass uses Brioche buns. But neither of our recipes would be unfamiliar to Hannah Glasse. Here’s my version:

Oyster Loaves

6 large Sally Lunn muffins
1 quart oysters
½ stick butter
½ cup water (or milk)
½ cup Sherry
Dash black pepper

Slice crowns off muffins. Remove crumb, leaving about 1/8th inch shell. Crumble crumb between fingers to form rough bread crumbs.

Melt butter in water. Add Sherry. Add oysters without their liquor and poach 2-3 minutes. Add crumbs and pepper, stirring. Cook until thickened.

Slightly overfill shells with oyster mixture. Return crowns. Bake at 300F until Sally Lunns are crisped and warmed through.
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David



Joined: 30 Sep 2004
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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2008 4:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Delightful! Don't you love measures such as "a good lump of butter"!!

I don't think I have ever run across "oyster loaves" in any form, anywhere before. This C & Z place truly continues to fascinate!
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KYHeirloomer



Joined: 21 Aug 2007
Posts: 552
Location: Central Kentucky

PostPosted: Fri Dec 05, 2008 4:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Oh, yeah, David. But you don't know the half of it. Adapting antique recipes can really drive you batty. Directions, 200 years ago, were often vague at best, because it was assumed (rightfully so) that the reader had a basic cooking gestalt.

A lot of times ingredient amounts were phrased "add some X." Some. Now there's a precise measurement. Or how about "a wineglass full."

My favorite is "cook til enough." Always reminds me when I was first teaching Friend Wife how to cook, and she'd ask how long to cook something. I'd say, "until it's done." Yeah, she'd whine, but how do you know when it's done? I can imagine a teenage girl, back around 1712, asking her mother, "yeah, but how do you know when it's enough?"

The real danger, when adapting recipes, is understanding that the same measurement often meant different things. For instance, a British gil is 1/5 of a cup. An American gil is 1/4 cup. Sometimes that can make a big difference in the final result. Similarly, a British teaspoon, tablespoon, etc. means level, whereas American spoonsfull traditional were rounded.

Oyster loaves really are delicious, but rather rich. I usually reserve them as a first course for that reason.

As should be obvious, the crumb, when returned to the pot, becomes the thickening agent. A modern version of these would be oysters vol a vent (sp?), which basically uses a roux-thickened white sauce to accomplish the same thing.
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Rachel



Joined: 22 Oct 2006
Posts: 296
Location: Santa Barbara, CA

PostPosted: Mon Dec 08, 2008 8:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fascinating - I knew that many Victorian Christmas traditions are still observed (and that they were a combination of English and German customs) but wasn't aware that some of the dishes had much older antecedents. Most of the menu looks familiar to me - was initially perplexed by the oyster loaves, but they do indeed sound like the ancestors of oyster vol-au-vent (or feuilletes d'huitre - I wonder if they originated in France or England?).

KYH - talking of culinary history books published by museums, are you familiar with Gillian Riley's A Feast for the Eyes, published by the National Gallery in London? It covers the eras and civilisations represented in the gallery's collection (Quattrocento Florence, the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, 18th-century Venice, 19th-century Paris etc.) and is a wonderful read.

I must confess, though, to being mystified by the last item on that Christmas menu. What is shrub??
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KYHeirloomer



Joined: 21 Aug 2007
Posts: 552
Location: Central Kentucky

PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2008 2:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm familiar with the Gillian Riley book, Rachael. But my area of interest is 17th & 18th American cookery, and the flanking years, so didn't pay much attention to it.

Shrub is a sweet punch, very popular with Victorian ladies, because they could drink it without appearing to imbibe. One contemporary observer described it as "dangerously delicious."

A typical recipe would be this one, from Anne Corbett's The English Housekeeper, written in 1851:

Shrub

To 1 quart of strained orange juice, put 2 lbs. loaf sugar, and 9 pints of rum or brandy; also the peels of half the oranges. Let it stand one night, then strain, pour into a cask, and shake it four times a day for four days. Let it stand till fine, then bottle it.

Lorna Sass suggests it likely that oranges were less sweet in those days, and today we would cut back on the sugar. But I don't think that's 100% true. The oranges in Victorian England likely came from Spain, and would have been the equivilent of today's Sevilles.
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dory



Joined: 11 Nov 2007
Posts: 236
Location: Madison, WI

PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2008 11:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I wonder if they just liked it sweeter in those days. On the other hand, with 9 pints of brandy, perhaps the shrub wasn't and sweeter than today's liqueurs. I wonder if it tasted somewhat like Cointreau or Grand Marnier?

IT is interesting because I came across a concentrate for making "shrub" in a gourmet store a few years ago, and as I remember it was blueberries preserved in vinegar. There was no mention of adding anything alcoholic, and when I mixed it with water it was kind of tart, like unsweetened cranberry juice.

I am really enjoying all of the culinary history. I have a question, however, for KY Heirloomer. Why were oysters so popular across the U.S. in areas far from the coasts before rapid transportation. Were they canned or bottled? Do you know? I grew up in the Midwest and our idea of "seafood" was mostly frozen fish sticks, canned tuna, and Lake Trout which seems to have disappeared. I am not that young but also not in the nursing home age group or anything. I think I have to look into this-- especially as I have a piece of writing due. I sense procrastination coming on!

Dory

Dory

Dory
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dory



Joined: 11 Nov 2007
Posts: 236
Location: Madison, WI

PostPosted: Wed Dec 10, 2008 12:55 am    Post subject: I figured it out! Reply with quote

I found out why people were eating oysters for Christmas in parts of the U.S. far from the sea. Apparently before refrigerated transport, oysters were transported, live, in barrels of seawater. However, they could only be transported in cool months. At first they carried them in horse drawn wagons, and then they got "rapid" transport-- steam powered trains. In summer months, oysters were unavailable because they would die and spoil in the heat on the trip inland. Who would have thought it? I never would have thought about this without the posts on 19th century Christmas.

Dory (Only once this time!)
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David



Joined: 30 Sep 2004
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PostPosted: Wed Dec 10, 2008 4:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fascinating Dory. Yet (and any other Canadians out there can tell me I'm wrong) I don't recall oysters being part of the Christmas traditions here in either the English or French cultures.
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KYHeirloomer



Joined: 21 Aug 2007
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Location: Central Kentucky

PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 12:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very strange, David. Oysters have been part of the British Christmas celebration at least since the Middle Ages. And one would presume, given their penchant fot the bivalves, that it would be part of the French heritage as well.

Oysters In Gravy (oyster stew) was pretty much a fast-day staple in well to do Medieval households, including Christmas season fast days (of which there were many). Here's one such recipe:

Oystres En Gravey

Take gode Mylke of Almaundys (almond milk), and drawe it wyth Wyne an gode Fysshe brothe, an sette it on the fyre, & let boyle; & caste ther0to Clowes, Maces, Sugre an powder Gynere, an a fewe parboyled Oynonys y-mynsyd (minced onions). Than take fayre Oystres, & parboyle hem in fayre Water, & caste hem there to, an lete hem boyle to-gederys; & thanne serve hem forth

Definately not your mother's oyster stew. But cloves, mace, cinnamon, ginger---spicies we now think of as more suitable for baked goods and desserts---were all used in savory dishes right through the 18th century.

Cajuns love oysters, and they're always a part of Yuletide feasts in the swamp country. Hard to believe that their love of them didn't develop until the removal. Given that oysters were such a big part of New England cuisine, I can't imagine Acadia being much different.

I spent one Christmas in Cajun country, duck hunting. Part of the week was spent out in the swamps, but Christmas itself was spent with a family. Among the uses of oysters that week:

Oysters raw on the half-shell; fried oysters; oysters in a gumbo; oyster & cornbread dressing for the turkey, and an incredible dish of oysters in cream sauce flavored with tasso and served over pasta.

How many of those are traditional Christmas dishes depondent sayeth not.
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Judy



Joined: 29 Sep 2004
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 10:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Oysters have always been part of my family's Christmas celebration. My uncle was an oyster farmer and so we always had freshly opened oysters on the shell. When we celebrated Christmas here in Adelaide, he would fly a sack of oysters still in the shell over, then open them for us.
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Griffin



Joined: 09 Jun 2006
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Location: England

PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 7:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

KYH,

Quote:
Oysters have been part of the British Christmas celebration at least since the Middle Ages.


Have been, but I doubt that now, except in the posher houses and then not for tradition, but for their being food of the rich. These days, British Christmas food varies depending on the family and where they are from.

My Indian mum used to do a roast capon with the usual veggies, but occasionally she would put a South Indian twist on the capon. A Coorg spice mix or something similar for example.
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David



Joined: 30 Sep 2004
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 8:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, very interesting that!! I know France is joyfully scooping and slurping the lovely critters at Christmas time--and one would think that if the Cajuns are oyster happy then the Acadians from whence they came would be as well---and indeed I've done more research and in the past oyster stew was a Christmas Eve tradition which, like so many traditions has gone by the wayside for most. (And no I didn't just ask Benoit about his childhood memories!! Although his hometown it turns out has an oyster museum--a room at the back of a store--but a museum nonetheless) Oysters do show up in some reveillon menus in Quebec but as just one of many options. Cross the border here into Upper Canada and the Franco-Ontarienne would not have had easy access to seafood--traditionally. I spent most of my life on the Prairies, a thousand miles from salt water so my memories are coloured by that of course. Seafood was an exception at any time! More the land of the perogie than anything else!

While my very English grandmother would fry up a mess of oysters for breakfast (they lived near Vancouver BC so lots of access to seafoods) they weren't part of Christmas in any form. I'm wondering if there is an East/West split on this???
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KYHeirloomer



Joined: 21 Aug 2007
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 11:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wouldn't surprise me if there was an east/west split on this, David. At least until the latter part of the 19th century, when rail transport made carrying oysters practical.

That said, the first oyster-stuffed turkey I ever had was in the upper midwest. Of course, that was later 20th century, and I have no idea whether there was an old tradition there, or just something that family did.

>Have been, but I doubt that now, except in the posher houses and then not for tradition, but for their being food of the rich. These days, British Christmas food varies depending on the family and where they are from. <

The same could be said for North America, Griffin. Oysters are very expensive.

But we've been talking about historical traditions, and until about the middle of the 20th century, oysters were plentiful, and inexpensive. In fact, a lot of what are now posh foods---oysters, lobster, Atlantic salmon---were so common in the 17-19 centuries that they were given to servents. Laws had to be passed limiting how many times a week they could be used that way.

Indeed, Atlantic salmon were so plentiful they were harvested with pitchforks.

Oysters don't show up on Victorian menus because, due to their sexual connotations, they were not considered proper for genteel society. But you can bet barrels of them were consumed at men's clubs and the like. Meanwhile if you've ever seen the movie Tom Jones, that incredible eating scene between Tom and his mother does, indeed, include oysters. Of course, neither of them were members of the Ton.
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